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Joe Gardener from Soul in close-up Image: Pixar

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The frustrating tradition behind Soul’s great flaw

The Pixar film sets out to praise Black life, but winds up selling it out

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[Ed. note: This essay contains significant spoilers for Soul, including the ending.]

Soul is Pixar’s first film with a Black protagonist, but the story never accepts the narrative complexities of Blackness. It’s a film where the Black character is either a blue blob or a cat for much of the action, but is rarely in his own Black body. It’s a film where a supposedly raceless character takes over a Black body, causing the Black character to minimize his own dreams for a symbiotic good. Soul opens as a story about finding individual purpose in life. But when the nebulous character 22 enters the fray, the animated jazz odyssey becomes a wholly different tale.

In grafting a Black lead character onto an initially non-Black story, directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers and their co-writer Mike Jones portray the comforts of Black life, yet miss its intricacies. They’ve unwittingly crafted what’s known as a “passing narrative,” a story that betrays its Black protagonist in favor of the white good.

As humans, we’re prone to racializing people based on how they sound. Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman both play on the idea of Black men using white-sounding voices, to comedic effect. Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) finds telemarketing riches once he adopts a white voice (dubbed in by David Cross), while Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) pitches his voice to higher nasal intonations over the phone to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. While it’s reductive to say someone “sounds white,” there is a dominant syntax attached to whiteness that influences its vocal quality.

Soul’s creators know this. When Black New Yorker Joe Gardner dies early in Soul, and winds up in a pre-life world called the Great Before, where he’s tasked with mentoring an unborn soul numbered 22, he takes exception to their voice: “Why do you sound like a middle-aged white woman?” 22, voiced by Tina Fey, proves they can sound like any race or gender, including perfectly mimicking Joe. But 22 chose Fey’s vocal identity because others find it annoying. The explanation allows the filmmakers to sketch 22’s personality without assigning the character a racial identity. Their generic blue-blob appearance and the voice explanation is meant to make us suspend our racial disbelief, and identify Fey’s voice not as that of a white woman, but as a parlor trick.

The Great Before counselors, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, and Terry confront Joe and 22 in Soul Image: Pixar Animation Studios

There’s another sound rattling in the Great Before, though: the gatekeeping Jerrys all share the same name and have similar minimalist designs, but they’re voiced by a diverse set of actors, such as English-Nigerian actor Richard Ayoade, Brazillian actress Alice Braga, and indigenous actor Wes Studi. Their insipid accountant teammate Terry is voiced by Kiwi actress Rachel House. It’s strange how these celestial beings, who assume simple forms to translate the universe’s immeasurable power into familiar human terms, remain diverse, as though they’re meant to reflect Joe’s representative human world. The varieties of voices emanating from the Jerrys and Terry make 22’s role as the dominant voice for unborn souls even more glaring.

Even with the film’s bid for a suspension of racial disbelief, the racial-passing narrative in the second act of Soul is acutely bizarre. Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) agrees to help 22 find the spark that inspires them so he can take their subsequent pass down to Earth, and reconnect with his comatose body. Before Joe fell into a manhole, he was slated to play the gig of his dreams, a one-night set at the Half Note with respected saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) and her jazz quartet. Those plans go awry when he attempts to return to his body, but wakes up in a hospital as a therapy cat, while 22 takes over Joe’s Black physique. 22 still sounds like Fey to the viewer, but the other characters hear Joe’s voice emerging from his body. The sonic markers of Fey’s voice makes it difficult to square the perplexing image of her voice coming from a Black man. And for an actress whose show 30 Rock came under fire for its blackface episodes, the creative decision to play a character passing as Black is doubly strange.

The themes inherent in passing narratives are also found in body-switch narratives. In his book Film Blackness, Michael Boyce Gillespie notes, “Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing.” Docter and Powers ambitiously upend the racial-passing trope by crafting a narrative where a raceless passer, voiced by a white woman, is publicly recognized as a Black person. The classic passing narrative, seen in movies like Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Imitation of Life and 1949’s controversial Lost Boundaries, is one of betrayal, where tragic mulattos deny their Blackness for the comforts of whiteness. In Soul, 22’s tragic existence is stressful and unfulfilling, until they are calmed by the Black experience. Their delight at existing for the first time, through a Black body, makes the reverse-passing narrative in Soul tantalizing.

Take Soul’s barbershop scene. For Black men, the barbershop is a casual cultural meeting place for open dialogue and safety. Joe’s barber Dez (Donnell Rawlings) puts 22 at ease, acting as a friend, cheerleader, and therapist rolled into one. In the past, Joe has only talked to Dez about jazz, but 22 pontificates about learning their purpose, and in the process, learns more about Joe’s friend than Joe ever did. Dez, it emerges, only became a barber because he needed the money after leaving the Navy. This enlightening conversation, along with a soothing haircut, brings 22 some happiness. As Gillespie further elucidates, “Passing is about identities: their creation and imposition, their accompanying rewards and penalties.”

Protagonist Joe Gardner (or at least his body) watches a Black busker in a train station in Soul Image: Pixar

In his review, critic Kambole Campbell compares Soul to another recent movie about the theft of Black bodies: “In a decade of film where Jordan Peele’s Get Out became part of our cultural lexicon, it makes one wonder why someone didn’t think through the plot device of a character voiced by a white actress piloting a Black man’s body. With all the film’s canniness about Black living, to see such a moment completely divorced from any kind of political thought feels completely bizarre and somewhat infuriating in how easily it could have been avoided.”

Soul and Get Out are both swap narratives, but Get Out is different in the sense that the white body-thieves are trying to procure Black bodies to live their white lives without the impediment of what they consider inferior physiques. They aren’t trying to pass for Black — when the protagonist, Chris, finds one of his friends possessed by a white man, he immediately knows something’s wrong. In Soul, it’s clearly implied that 22 is passing, as Joe’s friends and even his mother comment on his changed, behavior, but still accept him into their normal conversations. And once the rewards of passing become evident to 22, they’re only too happy to play along.

In Joe’s Black body, 22 swims in the wind wafting from a subway grate, comes to love the music played by a Black subway busker, and adores the subway itself. They also find a Black mother’s warmth. When 22 tears Joe’s suit only a few hours before his big gig, he seeks his mother (Phylicia Rashad) to have her fix it. Joe’s mother considers her son’s music career a dead end, but when he finally stands up to her, she retrofits his dad’s suit for him and hugs him. The warmth of that touch — the soothing hold of a Black mother over the fabric once worn by a nurturing Black father — fills 22 with tenderness. Soul could be such an uplifting film if the narrative continued to show Black life as an advantage, rather than an identity denied for whiteness.

Some of Soul’s issues may stem from the process in the script’s creation. The film began as 22’s story, and Joe’s character was only added later. Producer Dana Murray explains, “Once we decided on jazz, we knew Joe had to be Black. Once you start researching jazz at all, it’s Black foundational music […] So we found Kemp and that’s when he came on.” But it’s difficult to map Black themes onto a story that started with no Black characters. An action that plays one way with a non-Black character may read entirely differently with a Black character.

For instance, 22’s anxieties about incarnating on Earth engenders the character with a big heap of the story’s pathos. Soul starts out as a yarn about Joe’s dreams, but shifts to become about 22’s insecurities. In Joe’s Black body, with the support given by Joe’s Black barber, his Black mother, his Black hair, and his Black father’s spankin’ blue suit, 22 finds their spark. And yet when 22 refuses to relinquish Joe’s Black body, so he might perform at the Half Note, the filmmakers portray the supposedly raceless, yet white-voiced 22, as the one to be pitied. It’s a stunning betrayal of Joe.

Joe as a Cat and 22 as Joe sit on the stoop of a New York City building in warm light in Soul Image: Pixar

Expecting a Black writer to add themes to a story about a non-Black character is like asking a driver to navigate a narrow track in a wide car. They’re going to hit traffic cones along the way. Docter and Kemp hit plenty of those during Soul’s final act. 22 is not only positioned as the victim, but Joe falls prey to troubling tropes, as 22’s apologetic savior and the magical Black character who prioritizes 22’s troubles over his own. After his success at the Half Note, Joe returns to the Great Before to apologize to the soul who took his body and tried to deny him his dreams. It’s a serious crime against him, dropped and forgotten as Joe focuses on how he and 22 needed to find their sparks together.

The creative choice leads to a detrimental ending for this Black character. Soul posits Joe’s individualistic artistic pursuit, jazz, as not his purpose. While viewers might interpret the conclusion as instructional — appreciate life, or it might pass you by — the American dream, and the ideal of being American, is tethered to the importance of the individual. That dream is rarely proffered to Black Americans. From elections where Black people are routinely asked to fall into line with coalitions rather than standing our ground on Black-specific policies, to the workplace, where up until the summer of 2020, pointing out how workplace discrimination stunts our earning potential, Black people are usually required to sacrifice their individual pursuits for the universal good — or more specifically, the white good.

Joe shifting his purpose away from his own creative efforts and toward saving the film’s supposedly raceless, yet white-voiced character not only perpetuates this cycle, it plays into the most common tropes of the passing narrative, where the passer is the victim. By representing Black life as a comfort to be embraced, Soul offers viewers a form of soul food. But the filmmakers suggest that food is more valuable than actual Black lives. By valuing Joe’s body, experiences, and tastes more than they value Joe himself, they chart this existential animated odyssey into familiar waters — the ones where Black bodies and Black dreams come second to the white good.